I remember the day very clearly.
I walked into class, with my natural hair piled up high in the same bun that I had revived from the day before. My head was bobbin’ as I jammed to worship music to hype myself up on God’s goodness before another taxing day of school. I said good morning, sat down and got my laptop out of my backpack.
I heard the remnants of awkward laughter as I took my headphones off. I felt uneasy and knew that yet again, something was about to happen.
“We need to have a hair talk” were the words I heard as I opened my laptop. And I knew the “we” was really directed towards me. Apparently, my hair had been blocking a student in class the day before and a faculty member decided that my class time was the appropriate time to discuss my hair. I could feel my cheeks get hot and my stomach churn with embarrassment. I slowly typed “pray for me” into my imessage to my sister and my bestie group chat as the talking went on. I messaged my friend who I supposedly blocked to check in, just to find out that my hair had not been blocking him at all. The talk ended with “maybe you should be more aware of how you choose to wear your hair, or maybe you can sit in the back next time.”
The shivers that ran down my spine felt as if I was outside in the winter wind dressed like I was home in LA. I had talked with other Black female medical students and physicians about this in the past. They all said it was inevitable. The higher up you get, the fewer of us there are, and the more unicorn-like we appear, especially if you’re natural. But I never imagined how it would make me feel to be singled out in such a way, in a professional setting.
Thoughts ran through my head, should I go off? Should I explain how in appropriate it was to have a discussion like this in front of my peers? Should I get up and make this a teachable moment and write down the points I could remember in history of how Black women have been oppressed and objectified because of their hair/appearance? Should I remind the class how Rosa Parks was told to sit in the back of the bus? Would my comments even be well received, or deemed an angry outburst?
I chose to be silent that day for my peace, and discuss the issue with the faculty member afterwards. After allowing the awkward, tense silence to linger a little longer, I made some small comment about how I was also tall, but honestly, the room in which the “offense” had occurred was an auditorium style lecture hall where it was pretty impossible to block anyone.
At the end of class, said faculty said “Osose, can I speak with you outside?” I felt as if some of my power had been taken from me. To ask me to step outside, as if I had done anything wrong in the first place was infuriating. I needed to do the talking and share exactly how the monologue had made me feel. Not to mention the fact that I hadn’t actually blocked any student to begin with! But you can only teach those who realize they need to be taught. Did the conversation go well? Not at all. He started with a “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you were so sensitive about this..” Sensitive. What. Every time I tried to speak, I was spoken over, and I finally ended the conversation with a “thank you.” I left frustrated and ready to get on the next plane, and leave Michigan and its gloomy winter behind.
Later that day, I shared my experience with my sister and friends who were angry for me. Their emotions validated my feelings after feeling for a moment that maybe, just maybe, my feelings were unfounded. I remembered the growth I had had over the years. From working through the process of loving my natural hair and learning how to take care of it through college to glowing the heck up in my post grad life. I use to get my hair permed in elementary school because no one else had hair like me. My mom never had to do her hair in Nigeria cause she kept it short, but that translated into the “battle of the kinks” every time she would attempt to style it. Bless her heart. Straight hair was the ultimate prize, and I wanted it badly because somehow, my hair did not equate to beauty. To finally have reclaimed my hair in all of its glory, and move to Grand Rapids just to feel alienated because of my hair…
The “hair talk” incident, plus other questions I got about my hair from classmates and other people like “how long did it take to do your hair? That long?! Oh that’s a waste of time” or the classic touching without asking, etc made me want to capture more images of Black women, with various hairstyles, just being. Being their authentic selves, wearing their hair however they pleased knowing that their hair texture was not linked to their capabilities. Unbothered. Confident with their crowns.
After that first semester, I changed the mess out of my hair constantly, wearing what I liked when I liked (while keeping in mind that I wanted to do things that were easy to keep up cause med school is…tough). And I began to pray for more patience. Patience to be that light when called upon. To educate people who have not been exposed to diverse populations, leaving them more knowledgable and culturally aware.
Eventually, I found some Black women in Grand Rapids, willing to pose for me so I could capture the beauty of us. I am grateful for the hair stylist I found to help everyone look right, so thank you Treasure!
I almost canceled the shoot because I wanted to shoot with film, but the camera kept malfunctioning! So I was a bit frustrated with the shoot and set I constructed last minute. But I am grateful that I pushed through, because the more I create, the better the outcome. Plus, the story was more important for this one.
Hair Talk might just become a series after this. There is so much beauty in the day to day afro-puff, without edges slicked down and tamed. “We ain’t picture perfect, but we worth the picture still.” Stay tuned.